The Facemaker: A Visionary Surgeon’s Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I
A signiﬁcant challenge for any nonﬁction writer is not to overwhelm the reader with too many details—something that is easily done when charting the immense scale of events that took place between 1914 and 1918. This book is by no means a deﬁnitive history of plastic surgery during the First World War. Nor is it a comprehensive biography of Harold Gillies, the surgeon who dedicated himself to rebuilding the faces of soldiers maimed during that time. For that, there are many articles and books written by scholars who have devoted their entire careers to these subjects, as my endnotes will attest. Rather, what follows is an intimate account of the daily struggles Gillies and his team faced at the Queen’s Hospital, as well as the men who suﬀered the double trauma of injury on the battleﬁeld and the painful process of recovery.
In their own time, disﬁgured soldiers were often hidden from public view. The decision to include their photographs in this book was not made lightly. I consulted various experts, including a disability activist with a facial disﬁgurement. The photos are undoubtedly graphic, and many people will ﬁnd them diﬃcult to view. But it is impossible to grasp the severity of these men’s injuries and the reactions they elicited without seeing their faces. Equally, it is hard to appreciate fully the skill with which Harold Gillies and his team reconstructed soldiers’ faces without seeing the surgical progress chronicled in these photographs. However, there is an exception: I have not included pre- or post-operative images of injured men who died in Gillies’s care, as their reconstruction was never completed.
It bears stressing that this is a work of nonﬁction. Anything placed between quotation marks comes from a historical document—be it a letter, diary, newspaper article, or surgical casebook. Any descriptive references to gestures, facial expressions, emotions, and the like are based on ﬁrsthand accounts.
It is my hope that through the telling of this tale, readers will gain a new perspective on the terrible consequences of trench warfare, and the private battles that many men fought long after they put down their riﬂes.
NOVEMBER 20, 1917
Brilliant shards of crimson and gold pierced the eastern sky as dawn broke over Cambrai. The French city was a vital supply point for the German army positioned twenty-ﬁve miles from the Belgian border. On the dewy grass of a nearby hillside, Private Percy Clare of the 7th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment, was lying on his belly next to his commanding oﬃcer, awaiting the signal to advance.
Thirty minutes earlier, he had watched as hundreds of tanks rumbled over the soggy terrain toward the wire entanglement surrounding the German defense line. Under the cover of darkness, British troops had gained ground. But what had the appearance of a victory soon deteriorated into a hellish massacre for both sides. As Clare prepared himself for this dawn attack, he could already see the motionless, broken bodies of other soldiers scattered across the blasted landscape. “I rather wondered if I should even see another sun rise over the trenches,” he later recorded in tightly lettered script in his diary.
The thirty-six-year-old soldier was no stranger to death. A year earlier, he had been holed up in the trenches of the Somme, where tedious stretches of inactivity were punctuated by frenzied bouts of terror. Every few days, wagons arrived to exchange rations for corpses. But the sheer number of bodies made it impossible to keep up. “They lay in trenches where they’d fallen,” one soldier remembered. “Not only would you see them, but you’d be walking on them, slipping and sliding.”
These rotting bodies became structural ﬁxtures, lining trench walls and narrowing passageways. Arms and legs protruded out of the breastwork. Corpses were even used to ﬁll in blasted roads that were essential for military vehicles. One man recalled that “they just shovelled everything into the crater and covered it over [with] dead horses, dead bodies … anything to ﬁll up and cover it over and keep the traﬃc going.” Common decencies were abandoned as burial parties tried to keep pace with the body count. The dead hung like laundry over barbed wire, covered inches deep with a black fur of ﬂies. “The worst,” remembered one infantryman, “was the bubbling mass of countless worms which oozed from the corpses.”
The horror of these sights was exacerbated by the stench that accompanied them. The sickly-sweet scent of rotting ﬂesh permeated the air for miles in all directions. A soldier could smell the front before he could see it. The stink clung to the stale bread he ate, the stagnant water he drank, the tattered uniform he wore. “Did you ever smell a dead mouse?” asked Lieutenant Robert C. Hoﬀman, a veteran of the First World War, when warning Americans against involvement in the second a little over two decades later. “This will give you about as much idea of what a group of long-dead soldiers smell like as will one grain of sand give you an idea of Atlantic City’s beaches.” Even after the dead were buried, Hoﬀman recalled, they “smelled so horribly that some of the ofﬁcers became extremely sick.”
Clare had grown accustomed to the dead, but not to the dying. The tremendous amount of suﬀering he had witnessed was etched into his mind. Once, he had stumbled upon two Germans cowering in a trench, their chests ripped open by shrapnel. The soldiers bore an uncanny resemblance to each other, leading Clare to conclude that they were father and son. The sight of their faces—“ghastly white, their features livid and quivering, their eyes so full of pain, horror and terror, perhaps each on account of the other”—haunted him. Clare had stood guard over the wounded men, hoping that medical assistance would arrive soon, but eventually he was forced to move on. Only later did he discover that a friend named Bean had thrust his bayonet into their bellies after Clare had quit the scene. “My indignation consumed me,” Clare wrote in his diary. “I told him he would never survive this action; that I didn’t believe God would suﬀer so cowardly and cruel a deed to go unpunished.” Shortly afterward, Clare came upon his friend’s decomposing remains in a trench.
Now, as he peered out over Cambrai’s battleﬁeld from his position on the hillside, Clare wondered what fresh horrors awaited him. In the distance, he could hear the faint staccato of the machine guns, and the whistle of shells as they sailed through the air. Clare wrote that upon impact, the “earth seemed to quake, at ﬁrst with a jerk, like a giant startled out of sleep; afterwards with a continuous trembling communicated to us through our bodies lying there in contact with it.” Shortly after the shelling began, his commanding oﬃcer gave the signal.
It was time.
Clare ﬁxed his bayonet to his riﬂe and cautiously rose to his feet along with the other men in his platoon. He began marching down the exposed hillside. Along the way, he passed a stream of wounded men, their faces blanched with terror. Suddenly, a shell burst overhead, temporarily obscuring the scene with a cloud of smoke. Once it cleared, Clare saw that the platoon ahead of his own had been destroyed. “A few minutes later we moved on, stepping over the mutilated bodies of our poor comrades,” he wrote. One corpse in particular drew his attention. It was a dead soldier who was entirely naked, “every stitch of clothing blown from the body … a curious eﬀect of [a] high explosive burst.”
Clare’s own platoon continued to advance, passing through the carnage on the way to its intended target: a strongly fortiﬁed trench protected by a wide belt of barbed wire. As they drew closer, the Germans began raking them with bullets, their machine gunners and riﬂemen ﬁring from several positions at once. Suddenly, Clare felt woefully underprepared. “[H]ow absurd it seemed to be advancing just one thin line of khaki, against the immensely strong entrenchment from which now belched a continuously increasing riﬂe ﬁre.”
Clare inched forward, weighed down by the heavy pack of supplies that all infantrymen were required to carry. These packs, which could weigh as much as sixty pounds, contained everything from ammunition and hand grenades to gas masks, goggles, shovels, and water. Clare negotiated tangles of barbed wire, keeping low to the ground to avoid the shower of bullets ﬂying overhead.
Then, seven hundred yards from the trench, he felt a sharp blow to the side of his face. A single bullet had torn through both his cheeks. Blood cascaded from his mouth and nostrils, soaking the front of his uniform. Clare opened his mouth to scream, but no sound escaped. His face was too badly maimed to even arrange itself into a grimace of pain.
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